Abortion and eugenics

Diana Fleischman has written an excellent article for Quillette titled ‘The Moral Panic about Eugenics Poses a Threat to Abortion Rights’. The argument is right there in the title, and you can agree with it regardless of your stance on abortion. In other words, even if – unlike Fleischman – you’re pro-life, you can agree that opposition to eugenics has been used to restrict women’s access to abortion services. In fact, if you’re pro-life, you may consider this to be a good thing.

Despite the fact that Fleischman laid out her argument carefully, and anticipated many potential objections, the article generated a fair amount of “criticism” on social media. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of this “criticism” comprised NPCs sniggering over the word “eugenics”, or pretending to be outraged by what she’d said (thereby confirming her premise that there is a moral panic, or at least the pretence of one). Intellectually coherent counterarguments were extremely scarce.

If you know anything about this debate, you’ll already have guessed that much of the pointing-and-sputtering came not from religious conservatives, but from left-wing progressives. These commentators objected to Fleischman’s argument that something as appalling as “eugenics” could be related in any way to something as morally good as abortion rights. (The complex chain of reasoning on which they relied was basically: “abortion good; eugenics bad”). And these objections came in spite of the ample evidence Fleischman had adduced.

For example, she notes in her article that: several Republican states have sought to ban abortion on the basis of a genetic disability; conservative activists have explicitly mentioned the “injustice” of eugenics as a reason for preventing abortion of disabled foetuses; and disability-rights scholars have characterised aborting disabled foetuses as an “instrument” of eugenics. Incidentally, the reason why such abortions would be considered eugenics is obvious: many women abort disabled foetuses because they’d prefer to have a baby that isn’t disabled.

Before getting to a slightly better counterargument, what is the “moral panic” about eugenics? In short, it’s when people deploy terms like “eugenics” or “eugenicist” in a cynical attempt to shut down debate about important societal issues. For example, when the economist Gregory Clark was no-platformed at the University for Glasgow, the student newspaper labelled him a “eugenicist”, even though the paper he was due to present had nothing to do with eugenics. And after Bret Stephens wrote a piece on the achievement of Ashkenazi Jews which merely discussed IQ scores, the Guardian ran an article titled ‘New York Times columnist accused of eugenics over piece on Jewish intelligence’.

As many commentators have unwittingly discovered on Twitter, if you mention anything related to genes and social inequality, you may be greeted by a chorus of NPCs telling you that what you’re saying is “LITERALLY EUGENICS!” Sometimes, you don’t even have to mention genes. In 2019, the account for Blue Labour (a conservative faction within the Labour Party) tweeted, “A socialism which is economically radical and culturally conservative is the future of the Labour Party.” The tweet was ratioed by angry Labour supporters, at least one of whom described its message as “eugenics”. In this case, “eugenics” was simply being used to mean “anything vaguely right-wing”.

As I noted at the time, the “eugenics” comment was particularly historically illiterate, given that culturally conservative Catholics like G.K. Chesterton were among the strongest opponents of eugenics. By contrast, many progressive intellectuals – including the architects of Britain’s welfare state – were its enthusiastic advocates. The liberal political philosopher John Rawls made pro-eugenic arguments as late the 1970s. (So the next time someone talks about A Theory of Justice on Twitter, you can tell them what they’re saying is “LITERALLY EUGENICS!”)

The moral panic about eugenics obviously has its roots in the Nazi atrocities of World War II (which we can all agree were appalling). However, claims that various other things are “eugenics”, and are therefore terrible, appear to have ramped up in just the last few years. Indeed, they seem to be part of the larger phenomenon known as the Great Awokening. One particularly fitting casualty of this moral panic is the birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, who was recently denamed by Planned Parenthood – an organisation she herself founded.

Sanger was a stalwart eugenicist who worried about “race deterioration” and believed in the “sterilisation of the feeble-minded”. But until just a few years ago, she remained a hero on the political left. When Hillary Clinton received the Margaret Sanger award from Planned Parenthood in 2009, she said, “I admire Margaret Sanger enormously … I am really in awe of her.” At the time, she was criticised by conservatives. But if Clinton repeated her comments today, she’d almost certainly face more wrath from the left. Sanger’s British counterpart, Marie Stopes, was also cancelled recently – despite once being considered a feminist icon.

Interestingly, the defenestration of Sanger and Stopes illustrates two of Fleischman’s points: one, there’s a moral panic about eugenics; and two, eugenics and birth control have always been closely connected. Indeed, both women saw their advocacy of birth control as flowing naturally from their beliefs about eugenics. In Sanger’s famous essay, ‘Birth control and racial betterment’, she notes that birth control “not only opens the way to the eugenist, but it preserves his work”. And it has been said of Stopes that “her particular efforts to provide birth control for the poor had far more to do with her eugenic concerns”. In fact, historian Jane Carey argues that “in the interwar years birth control and eugenics were so intertwined as to be synonymous”.

Returning to Fleischman’s core thesis, a somewhat better counterargument than simply pointing-and-sputtering is as follows. There’s no moral panic about eugenics – or if there is one, it’s justified – because “eugenics” has a very specific meaning, which is something like “attempts by the state to increase the number of people with desired characteristics or reduce the number of people with undesired characteristics”. Consequently, any associated moral panic doesn’t pose a threat to abortion rights, since abortion is a choice made by individuals, not something imposed by the state. However, I don’t find this argument convincing for two reasons.

First, although one can define ‘eugenics’ in the narrow way described above, that does not seem to be the way most people (outside of left-wing academia) define the term today. As Fleischman has been at pains to point out, the broader definition of “eugenics” is accepted by progressive activists, conservative activists, legislators, bioethicists, and disability-rights scholars. Both Wikipedia and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy recognise that “eugenics” may encompass individual reproductive decisions, as well as measures imposed by the state. (See this paper for a longer argument.)

Second, even if you believe that ‘eugenics’ should be defined in the narrow way, that is kind of immaterial, since – as Fleischman shows in her article – activists and legislators have already invoked “eugenics” as a reason to restrict women’s access to abortion services. It’s no good telling a religious conservative, or a disability-rights activist, “Ackshually, ‘eugenics’ has a much narrower meaning, so you’re wrong to base your anti-abortion stance on opposition to eugenics”. I presume the response would be either: “Well, I define ‘eugenics’ differently”. Or: “Whatever the precise meaning of ‘eugenics’, aborting disabled foetuses is wrong, since it implies some lives are worth more than others”.

As far as I can see then, Fleischman is absolutely correct: the moral panic about eugenics does pose a threat to abortion rights. Whether that should worry you or cheer you naturally depends on your view of abortion. But putting one’s fingers in one’s ears, and pretending that there’s no conflict – that abortion rights couldn’t possibly be related to eugenics because that would mean something I consider good is actually bad – is not a viable strategy.

Given the trends Fleischman documents in her article, we may yet see one of two things happen. Progressives may come to terms with the fact that not every form of eugenics is an unspeakable crime against humanity, and that women’s right to get an abortion for any reason (including the results of a prenatal test) is worth defending. Alternatively, progressives might coalesce around a new moral position, whereby women’s right to get an abortion remains intact but prenatal testing becomes “problematic”. In the latter case, one can imagine progressives supporting laws that prohibit the use of such testing while still allowing abortions to take place.

Image: Marie Stopes at her laboratory, 1904


Ideological disagreements

I don’t usually recommend things written in The Guardian, but for Hadley Freeman’s latest – and apparently last – column, I have to make an exception. After all, it’s not every day that someone on the left bemoans the decline of good-faith disagreement. Though it should be noted that Freeman has previously expressed views of a gender critical nature, so she’s not on the woke left. Anyway, here’s an excerpt:

Given that he went on to become Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesperson, and I’m an American Zionist who happily voted for Tony Blair, it’s safe to say we disagree about quite a lot. But it was Milne who brought me on to the Guardian’s comment section and he became one of the most encouraging editors I ever had. Ideological disagreements were just a normal part of life on the paper back then, and mixing only with those you agree with would have been seen by many journalists as embarrassingly partisan and unprofessional.


The Daily Sceptic

I’ve written four more posts since last time. The first notes that Great Barrington author Jay Bhattacharya was recently mobbed by his own colleagues at Stanford. The second notes that long COVID is even less common than previously thought. The third argues that the vaccine rollout was based on safetyism, not science. The fourth summarises a study finding that women are consistently more pro-lockdown than men.


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